LYNN NEARY, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.
In October 1980, C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb made a simple request to his viewers: Give us a call and share your opinion. Over the next 25 years, the cable network fielded more than a half-million phone calls from ordinary citizens to people in high places.
(Soundbite of C-SPAN programming)
Mr. BRIAN LAMB: Let's go to the phones. Washington, DC. Go ahead, please. Hello. Hello, Washington.
Unidentified Woman: Hello. Is this Mr. Brian Lamb?
Mr. LAMB: Yes, it is.
Unidentified Woman: Would you hold one moment, please, for the president?
(Soundbite of audience reactions)
Unidentified Woman: Mr. Lamb, here's the president.
President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Lamb and students, I just came upstairs to the study here and turned on the set, and there you were, and I watched long enough to hear several questions that shows your concern about the exclusionary rule. I won't get into the debate about the most recent thing you've been discussing here. What I really had in mind I guess there wasn't enough time to...
NEARY: That was, of course, President Ronald Reagan calling in to C-SPAN. And in the early '80s, call-in shows were a rare breed, and none of the national broadcast networks had a regularly scheduled call-in program. This weekend as C-SPAN celebrates a quarter century of its call-in programs, the spectrum is crowded with other cable news stations, a wide array of radio talk shows and Internet chat rooms, not to mention blogs. And Brian Lamb, chairman and CEO of C-SPAN, joins us now from their studios here in Washington.
So good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. LAMB: Hi, Lynn. How you doing today?
NEARY: Great. I just talked with another broadcasting legend. This is my day with broadcasting legends. That must have been quite a moment for you, Brian Lamb, when Ronald Reagan called in.
Mr. LAMB: Well, you know, it really is fun to hear it again. I had an expression on my face when that call came in that I've never seen anywhere on my face, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, it was about 20 years ago.
NEARY: Yeah. How are you celebrating your 25th anniversary?
Mr. LAMB: Well, we wanted to do one simple thing, and that was to open the phones up, and so we decided to have a 25-hour call-in program, non-stop, around the clock to commemorate the call-in show and to hear from lots and lots of callers and have guests that had been on over the years who helped us get started in this business.
NEARY: Brian Lamb is my guest. He's the chairman and CEO of C-SPAN, and if you would like to call in to our talk show, TALK OF THE NATION, give us a call at (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK.
Now back in 1980, how many call-in talk shows were there at that time would you say?
Mr. LAMB: Well, there were no television call-in shows, and radio had mastered this form of communication that started for radio back in the '50s. A lot of hometown radio stations around this country had the local talk shows. Larry King started the national in '78, and we started our television call-in show, as you said, on October 7th in 1980, and really television doesn't really like call-in shows because it doesn't sustain an audience very long, and that's why you find that people in television start it, but they don't keep them very long.
NEARY: Yeah. What's your philosophy about call-ins? I mean, how do you think call-in shows can help shape the national debate about important issues?
Mr. LAMB: I'd say two things. One, it just allows you, as you know, to hear the voice--the spontaneous voice of people--all over the United States and the way they feel about all these different issues. Sometimes you hear people calling in and they sound like they just got their marching orders from some other talk show. But if you do it long enough and keep the phones open, you will hear genuine personal reactions to what's going on in the news.
The second thing I think is it's very important that people in power have to hear the average person talking back to them, and I find that callers often are far more honest about how they really feel about politicians and issues than even those of us who ask questions. And I love hearing the direct shot to somebody in power that says, `You're not telling me the truth.' And you don't get that from us. We don't talk that way.
NEARY: Call-in shows have also become very partisan. I mean, they're--they can be divisive, do you think?
Mr. LAMB: Yes, but politics has always been divisive and always been, you know, in history violent. I'm not sure it matters in a multiple channel environment. If there were only three channels and you had all this divisiveness, it might be a lot more destructive, but you know, this is a divided country and there are almost as many people on both sides of the fence as there are on the other, and so I'm not surprised that it's divisive right now.
NEARY: Of course, you have that device of separate phone numbers for callers for or against a certain issue, that let's you sort of separate out the opponents.
Mr. LAMB: Yeah, and we don't really like it, but what happened back in the Clinton years is the Clinton haters were dominating the call-in show, and that's when we decided to divide the lines. And then in the Bush years, the Bush haters are the ones that are calling all the time, and you don't have a discussion that way, and then people on the other side don't want to come sit and be bashed, you know, call after call. So in spite of the fact we don't like it, we split the lines a lot of years ago to try to make it a better discussion.
NEARY: All right. We're going to go to the phones now. Let's go to Chris in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Chris.
CHRIS (Caller): Hi, there. It seems like you guys just answered my question. I was just going to ask. Every time I watch C-SPAN and I notice the phone numbers, there's always a number for the Republicans and a number for the Democrats. I'm kind of like in the middle; I like the Republicans, I like the Democrats. And I was just curious, and it seems like you were already elaborating on the topic--why have the separation? I guess I'll take my answer off the air.
NEARY: OK. Thanks for your call, Chris.
CHRIS: Yeah, you're welcome.
NEARY: Could you add a third number for undecideds?
Mr. LAMB: We do. It's not actually undecideds usually; it's others. And people violate that, too. You know, they say, `Well, I used to be a Republican and I used to love George Bush and--but I'm not a Democrat, but I still don't like him now,' and so they use that avenue. But we really intend the others line to be someone who's not a Democrat, not a Republican and not someone who votes on one side or the other on a regular basis 'cause there are a lot of Independents out there. You know, it's a fine line and it's not an absolute science. So it works for us, but I'm sure there's a better way to do it, and you guys do a great job at TALK OF THE NATION.
NEARY: Well, thank you very much.
Mr. LAMB: Well, I've been on the show a couple of times, and you know, it works for you-all, but for us it's a different--I don't know why.
NEARY: Yeah. Would you say that the average caller has changed over the years?
Mr. LAMB: The average caller is more partisan, I think, and a little more bitter, but people are more cynical about politicians than they used to be, and my own take on that is there's so much money in it now, and it's become such a money-chase that that's what's creating all this. But you know, you're going to need someone that's better political science than I am to really know the reason.
NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Kate. She's in Glouster, Ohio. Hi, Kate.
KATE (Caller): Hi. Thanks, Brian, and thanks, TALK OF THE NATION, for having Brian on. You offer I think the nation an incredible service. It's just really an important service you provide. But I wanted to ask you, in your 25 years have you ever been pressured by any individual group or administration to not cover a topic, and do you think mainstream media is serving the American public with accurate coverage of events?
Mr. LAMB: Oh, boy, that's a good one. We have never--I'm trying to think if--we've never been pressured enough to matter to not cover something. You have members of Congress and the administration calling up all the time and insisting that we cover something, and we often don't. It all depends on what our editorial team wants us to do. The other part of that--remind me of that?
KATE: Was do you think the media...
Mr. LAMB: Oh, yeah.
KATE: ...you know, one day I watched the Terri Schiavo coverage 78 times in 12 hours and I didn't see a tiny bit of coverage on some families who had gone to Fayetteville, North Carolina--military families--there wasn't one second of coverage on the march down there. And I'm just wondering from your historical perspective, do you think the media's doing its job by providing the American public with accurate coverage?
Mr. LAMB: First of all, I think we expect to much out of the media based on an environment that we had about 25 years ago when it was a heavily regulated industry, and the networks had to do public affairs to keep their license. Now it is a deregulated environment, and the only thing that drives a lot of these news networks is the bottom line, and to get to the bottom line they feed the public or enough of the public what they want so that they can keep those numbers up. I guess I feel very mixed about all this. I think if you want coverage in this country of issues, there are plenty of places you can go to get it. But if you're expecting it out of some of these news networks and don't understand their economic problems, you're not going to get it.
I'm not happy about what they do. They don't ever ask me what my opinion is 'cause they're running a business, and I think it's nonsense that you have 472 days of Aruba. I don't get it. I don't understand it. I'm not interested in it. But again, I'm not paying the bills, and that's why they do that. It's all money-driven.
NEARY: All right. Thanks...
KATE: But, Brian, you know, often the answer is that this is just what the American public wants. I don't buy it. I think there's a--like you said, the bottom line is money or there's another agenda or the producers--I just don't buy--I hear over and over again in the American public they're tired of this repetitive...
Mr. LAMB: Well...
NEARY: All right. Kate, thanks so much for you call. I'm going to let Brian respond to you now.
Mr. LAMB: Kate, you're right. It's not what the American people want, but it's what enough of the American people want to make the numbers work out for these networks, and they're looking at audiences that might be 7, 800,000 people strong. There are 300 million people in the United States. All Americans don't want that, but they're playing a numbers game, and once they find out that people will follow something like Aruba, they will never stop until the clock shows or the Nielsen rating shows that they're starting to lose audience, and then they'll shift.
NEARY: But, you know, Brian, I don't think that people expected C-SPAN to have the audience that it has. When it first started, you know, people said, `Oh, you know, that's going to be like watching the wallpaper dry.' You know, they're going to just show us whole news conferences without editing it and boring speeches and yet peop--you know, Congress unedited, and yet people are fascinated by it.
Mr. LAMB: Well, you know, Lynn, we've been lucky enough 'cause of our cable industry to take the numbers out of it, take the money out of it, and that's the only way this kind of thing would work, and so we never look at numbers and we never have to worry about it. NPR's in some of the same kind of situation, although I think you-all--you know, you're doing very well but I think you also have to look--you have to make sure somebody's listening. We frankly don't, and there are days when we put stuff on we know very few people are watching it. But again, our industry under the way we're set up doesn't demand that we have an audience.
NEARY: Yeah, but do you think it's been more successful than you ever thought it would be or did you always...
Mr. LAMB: No...
NEARY: ...think that there was an audience for this from the start?
Mr. LAMB: I think it's happened just about the way I expected it to. I actually--this'll sound strange to you. I thought we'd have a bigger audience than we do.
Mr. LAMB: And that's not disappointing to me, but I just find that people will chase the silliest things and get all excited on television about things that don't matter to me. But again, it's more of a marketplace than it's ever been.
NEARY: My guest is Brian Lamb. He is the chairman and CEO of C-SPAN.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We're going to take a call from Mike in Ohio. Hi, Mike.
MIKE (Caller): Hi.
MIKE: Hey, Brian, this is Mike Smith.
Mr. LAMB: Hi, Mike.
MIKE: Just wanted to know when you started, lo, those many years ago in the industry, did you expect to just get policy wonks listening or calling in or are you surprised by the breadth of the callers that call in now?
Mr. LAMB: I'm actually not surprised by the breadth of the callers. I came from a small town in Indiana and I was interested in all this because I knew my friends were interested, and they weren't sophisticated policy wonks, and I've always thought that the average person, the person who doesn't happen to have a college degree, who are interested in news and public affairs could also deal with all this as well as anybody else. So I'm not the slightest bit surprised at the kind of audience we have.
NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Mike. Let's go to Amanda, and Amanda is in New York. Hi, Amanda.
AMANDA (Caller): Hello.
NEARY: Hi, Amanda. Are you there?
AMANDA: Yes, I am.
NEARY: Go ahead.
NEARY: Go ahead, Amanda.
AMANDA: Who am I speaking with?
NEARY: You're speaking with Brian Lamb on TALK OF THE NATION.
AMANDA: Mr. Lamb? Brian Lamb?
NEARY: Yes, you are. Go ahead.
AMANDA: C-SPAN CEO?
AMANDA: Yes. I was wondering the anniversary of C-SPAN, first broadcaster of C-SPAN.
NEARY: We're celebrating--or C-SPAN is celebrating its 25th anniversary of call-in shows on C-SPAN. That is why we have Mr. Lamb here today. And, Brian, I was wondering. You--I know you're going to have something like a 25-hour marathon broadcast to mark this event?
Mr. LAMB: Lynn, starting tomorrow night at 8:00 we start 25 hours, about 30 guests, one hour after another, and it's just--all that does it just commemorates 25 years. There's no other reason to do it, and it's just--we're actually--first time we've ever done anything like this. Hope it's fun.
NEARY: And who are some of the people you're going to have on?
Mr. LAMB: Well, the first guest we have on is Phil Donahue, and the reason for that is that Phil Donahue is one of the greatest inventors of all this stuff...
Mr. LAMB: ...of anybody in the business. He did call-ins on television; not every week or anything, but periodically out of Dayton when he was in Dayton, Ohio. We also have people like Pat Buchanan and we have Susan Page and her husband, Carl Leubsdorf, are going to come on at 3:00 in the morning. We--I don't have a list in front of me. I'm sorry.
NEARY: You're not doing it for the whole 25 hours now are you?
Mr. LAMB: Oh, no, no, no, no. I'm going to do three hours tomorrow night and three hours on Saturday and--to wrap it up, and we're also having our winner. A 17-year-old won our contest that we tried to find somebody to write an essay and we had hundreds participate, but a 17-year-old won it out of Florida, and she's going to join us for one of our hours Saturday night.
NEARY: All right. Let's take another call from Hiram in Nashville.
HIRAM (Caller): Hey, how you doing?
NEARY: Good. Go ahead.
HIRAM: My question is, Mr. Lamb, it seemed like I heard a story somewhere that you used all our own money to start this network and it wasn't necessarily profitable and you were pouring a lot of your personal money back into that, so what's the structure of the business, and is that story true?
Mr. LAMB: I didn't use a dime of my own money. I didn't have any money then at all when we started, and the cable television industry funded the entire network, but it is a non-profit network. We don't make money for anybody. But we've gone from three million homes to 90 million homes in the last 25 years, and I'm just a hired gun here.
HIRAM: OK. Thanks.
NEARY: Thanks for your call, Hiram. That's interesting that there's that story out there, that you're some kind of a media mogul, I guess.
Mr. LAMB: Well, actually, Lynn, I've never heard that. You know, it didn't matter to me, and it's been a lot of fun, so the money part of it didn't matter, but the industry has certainly supported us, I think, in a very good way.
NEARY: You know, one other thing about C-SPAN I'm always wondering, you know, we in the news business know that every day there are a huge number of events, some more interesting than others. How do you decide on some of these things? Some are obvious; others, less obvious that you're going to cover.
Mr. LAMB: Yeah, the editorial board keeps track from balance standpoint, and when you don't have to worry about numbers you can say, if there's another side to an issue that hasn't been covered, you throw it up there and give the audience an opportunity to hear the other side. It may not have a very big audience, but it has some balance to it. So otherwise, you decide just like any editorial organization. You try to give people a chance to see how it's all happening, and sometimes it's a very little audience and sometimes it's a larger audience. But again, we don't measure it by the size of the audience.
NEARY: OK. One quick last call. Chuck in Charlottesville. Hi, Chuck.
CHUCK (Caller): Hi, Mr. Lamb. First of all, I just wanted to say congratulations on 25 years, and C-SPAN's such an amazing service. It's a real testament to what can be done in the marketplace. Quick question. I find that as an interviewer you have sort of a unique style. You get a lot of information out of very open-ended questions, and you seem to be very, very objective and have no agenda. What do you think--I mean, do you think that other journalists lean too heavily on their questions and try to sort of ask...
NEARY: We have about 30 seconds left for that answer now, Chuck. Thanks for the question, and if you can answer it quickly, Brian?
Mr. LAMB: Well, most other journalists don't do it my way, but I'm glad they don't. I mean, my way is my way, and other journalists get to where they are in this profession by being themselves. Sometimes I don't like it, but it's like everything else. A lot of people don't like it the way I do it.
NEARY: Thanks so much for being with us today, Brian.
Mr. LAMB: Thank you, Lynn.
NEARY: Brian Lamb is the chairman and CEO of C-SPAN.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Neal Conan will be back on Monday.